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Trust creates energy and success

January 28, 2015 – An interview with Roland Keim by Wouter van Daalen &samhoud consultancy

A few years ago, AkzoNobel Spain worked closely together with &samhoud on a transformation process for its coatings division. Several challenges had to be addressed simultaneously and within an atmosphere that was initially one of distrust amongst all employees. A new organizational structure was introduced, the production site was moved, distribution was outsourced, complexity was reduced significantly, commercial productivity was raised and the fragmented culture of several local brands was merged into a single AkzoNobel culture. Roland Keim, at that time Director General at AkzoNobel Coatings in Spain, did a great job with his team to confront all challenges and successfully transform the organization within a short period of time. Since we worked closely together in this process, I know that “Trust” is one of the pillars of Roland’s management philosophy. Back in the Netherlands we ended up talking about this topic, which apparently sounds easy and simple, but seems so hard to apply in management. I am therefore sharing this interview, which taps into a successful manager’s mind to shed some light on the topic of Trust.

What do you do if you are a leader in an organization where distrust exists and you wish to remedy this?”

“You have to start with yourself. As a leader, you have to set an example by being vulnerable. For instance, if you make a mistake (as every human being does), do not be afraid to admit it. You also have to show appreciation for employees who come up with ideas, voice their opinions, enjoy success and make mistakes from time to time. Let people speak up if they think that things should be done differently and challenge them by giving them the trust and space to act upon their insights and learn. In this way, you will gain trust step by step. Although this starts with the leader, the leadership style of the next level in the organization is even more important in this respect. Other than that, successful interventions are possible in order to elevate the level of trust between employees as it is important that people feel free to speak up and, even more importantly, to also (positively) challenge their direct colleagues. In Spain we managed this by introducing ‘leadership journeys’ that cascaded top-down in the organization. In these journeys, people who had often worked together for many years really got to know each other for the first time, which is fundamental for cooperating effectively.”

“I can imagine with such a big change that you experienced resistance. How did you tackle that?”

“Besides setting an example, it is important to express a clear vision of where your organization is heading and to involve all employees in the creation of this “future state” of the company. If you set direction and have deeper dialogues with your employees, it’s easier to guide them along the way. The attention for your people will help you as a leader to create an atmosphere where people feel involved and contribute to the common goal, and where mutual trust exists. But reversing a situation of distrust can be difficult indeed because there will always be people in the organization who dislike the new situation, the new direction and the atmosphere. Sometimes these people can benefit from the distrust that existed within the company. Sometimes people have a different view of leadership and expect you to be the only one making decisions. If these people do not want to change and are impeding the journey towards trust, you may have to decide to let them go. They will probably be happier in a different environment.”

“You have worked in several cultural environments; in Spain, the United States and the Netherlands. Did you experience any difference in trust between these cultures and did you adapt your leadership style in these various countries?”

“I am convinced that the ultimate effect of creating trust is the same all around the world. You need a good level of trust in order to be able to work effectively. However, the approach you use to work on trust might have alterations due to cultural differences. The biggest differences I experienced related mostly to the degree to which hierarchy was felt within a company. American organizations are ultimately quite hierarchical. In Spain, there is often an even greater distance between ‘the boss’ and employees. You have to take this into account when anticipating the reaction of people and possibly adjust to that slightly by taking more time to minimize the distance between you and your team and employees. But despite these kinds of cultural differences, trust seems a universal topic to me. As I think about it, in Spain I worked in the same way as I would have approached these challenges in a Dutch company. Every human being will be more motivated and will personally grow if that person feels he (or she) is being trusted in the sense that they are given space to maneuver. This will boost their self-confidence, and combined with constructive feedback they should receive, it will increase their productivity considerably.”

“What suggestions do you have for other leaders regarding trust in a business environment?”

“Ask yourself whether you perform better if your boss communicates with you in an open and constructive manner, and when your boss also appreciates your feedback. Does your self-confidence increase if you feel trusted and does this influence your motivation level? And finally, is there any reason why this would work differently for other people in the organization? I believe it is quite simple: ensure employees in your organization are being treated as you would like to be treated yourself. I truly hope that this insight will attract increasing support in the future. And that managers will recognize the value of trust and do their utmost best to create an atmosphere of trust within their organizations in order to generate great business results!”

Roland Keim is CEO of BN International, former General Manager of AkzoNobel Coatings in Spain and former Director at Centraal Beheer Achmea in the Netherlands. Wouter van Daalen is a partner at &samhoud.

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